It’s a beautiful spring evening, and the gates to Llano Springs Ranch near Junction are wide open, welcoming guests who are here for the weekend.
Tom and Sonja Vandivier, along with Tom’s sister, Ann Brodnax, and Tom and Sonja’s daughter Jessica, greet each arrival with a smile. They’ve welcomed many guests over the years, but this weekend promises a different experience: a culinary adventure featuring gourmet meals sourced from Texas-only ingredients, including items harvested directly from the ranch.
The weekend was organized by Explore Ranches, a new Texas company that offers exclusive getaways to wild and scenic places. It doesn’t get more scenic than Llano Springs Ranch: 4,600 acres of the Texas Hill Country at the headwaters of the South Llano River. The culinary weekend is the first special event organized by the company, and co-founders Jay Kleberg, Allison Ryan and Jesse Womack are here to help host the weekend to be sure all goes smoothly.
Arriving guests include Erin and Andy Buckingham and Owen Temple from Austin, and Margaret Martin from Boerne. They are joined by a few journalists and a photographer who are covering the event for several Texas magazines. As each guest arrives, they are offered a cool drink and invited to enjoy the expansive porch. They are entertained by a variety of birds, including a vermillion flycatcher, which delights the group with its song and brilliant plumage.
Austin chef Jesse Griffiths is busy in the nearby kitchen and at the outdoor grill set up within view of the porch. A huge skillet of crawfish paella is in the works, and wild duck meatballs are being prepped for the grill. As the sun begins to set, Jesse and his team bring out appetizers. Pan con Tomate is a Texas twist on a Catalan staple, featuring ripe tomato and garlic served on rustic grilled bread. The dish is simply delicious.
The evening meal sets the stage for the culinary creativity that will be the hallmark for the weekend. The wild duck meatball is served with a creamy lemon aioli. The flavorful crawfish paella is perfectly prepared. The meal is complemented with mixed greens dressed with a charred onion vinaigrette and wines from the William Chris Vineyards and Lewis Wines near Hye, Texas. A simple mesquite flour Basque cake is offered for dessert. Conversation flows along with the wine, and newly met strangers get to know one another, discovering shared interests. A chorus of cicadas and frogs provide a lovely serenade. All look forward to the adventures ahead.
In the morning, guests are offered wild boar chorizo and eggs on handmade corn tortillas before venturing to Blue Hole for some fishing and exploring. The success of the venture will determine what’s for dinner. Rods in hand, Erin and Sonja head for the water immediately.
“You’d better catch something or we’re not going to eat,” joked Tom as he watched the anglers cast their lines into the water.
Blue Hole is one of the most beautiful spots on the ranch. A grassy clearing right at the confluence of Contrary Creek and the South Llano River, the area is a family draw for fishing and campouts. A short distance from the water, Jesse leads a group foraging for ingredients to enhance the day’s meals. Margaret carefully snips young pads from a stand of prickly pear cactus, mindful of the sharp spines. An agarita bush close by is examined for ripe berries. Chile pequins are also gathered.
“I think I’ll make an agarita berry glaze for the dove poppers we’re planning for an appetizer tonight,” mused Jesse. “I can use the chile pequins to flavor the cream cheese.”
Creating meals on the fly is Jesse’s superpower. The noted Austin chef owns Dai Due Butcher Shop and Supper Club, Dai Due Taqueria, and also runs the New School of Traditional Cookery. His cooking school features hunting and fishing excursions in which the harvested fish and game are the stars of whatever dish he cooks up.
Jesse’s passion for hunting, fishing and the meals that result is one reason he was chosen as an ambassador for Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation’s (TPWF) We Will Not Be Tamed campaign. The campaign encourages Texans to appreciate the wildness of Texas, the vastness of our Texas spirit and why we should be inspired to conserve it. Explore Ranches has also partnered with TPWF on the campaign.
Down at the riverbank, the anglers have been successful. A largemouth bass and some blue gill and long ear sunfish will show up on the menu later today. As Jesse heads back to the ranch house, provisions in hand, the group splits up to explore the ranch.
One group hops onto a four-wheel-drive vehicle for a tour of the ranch guided by Tom and Sonja. Llano Springs Ranch is known for its efforts to restore and conserve the land here. The family bought the ranch in 1994. At the time, it was covered with cedar. Inspired by another Hill Country rancher, the family was motivated to do all they could to restore wildlife habitat.
“We read about David Bamberger in a magazine article and we wanted to emulate what he had done to restore his land, which improved wildlife habitat and brought back springs that hadn’t been there for decades,” said Sonja. “The story of Selah Bamberger Ranch is remarkable, and we have tried our very hardest to follow in his footsteps and restore this land as best we can.”
It was very hard work. Over the course of 18 years, the family cleared 2,800 acres of the invasive cedar, known for crowding out native plants and sucking up water.
“We did all the work ourselves as weekend warriors,” said Tom. “As the land was cleared, it was so interesting to watch the changes. The grasses came back as soon as the rain and sunlight hit, and the beneficial plants came back, too. The wildlife prospered, the water resources prospered, and we could see it happen right before our eyes. It was a lot of work, but all pure pleasure.”
The hard work did not go unnoticed. In 2007, the family received a Lone Star Land Steward award from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the state’s highest honor for land stewardship. In 2008, the ranch was honored with the Aldo Leopold Award from the Sand County Foundation, the most prestigious land stewardship award in the country.
“It was humbling and meant a lot to us” said Tom. “But along with the flattery comes an obligation and a responsibility to spread the word. We’ve worked with the Sand County Foundation, Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Texas Wildlife Association to give back. That’s been very gratifying, too.”
While the ranch tour was underway, Ann led another group to a few of her favorite spots on the ranch. Along the river we spotted dozens of cliff swallows, and high up on a ledge, a huge nest. We wondered aloud whether that could be an eagle’s nest, and Ann confirmed that many eagles nested here, including bald eagles.
Ann also led a group to the secret spot where the South Llano River begins. We traipsed through a field festooned with wildflowers, stopping to admire a beautiful butterfly on a pink thistle. We made our way down a rocky path to a ledge overlooking crystal-clear water. Ann pointed upstream where the springs bubble up, forming the headwaters of the South Llano River. Unable to resist, Jay took off his shoes and jumped in, taking a fully-clothed swim. Following his lead, the magazine photographer carefully laid down his gear and jumped in right after him. The two emerged refreshed, bearing some fresh mint they found as they paddled around.
We love to see people who enjoy this land as much as we do,” said Ann. “We hope they take a piece of it in their heart when they go home.”
As the group reconvened, a flock of large birds flew by, high in the sky. We spotted that unmistakable white crown and marveled at the sight of a majestic bald eagle, likely heading back to the nest we had spotted earlier. How could this day possibly get any better?
In a word: lunch.
As we gathered at the ranch house, Jesse and his crew brought out an appetizer of bean tostaditas topped with axis venison picadillo and cabbage. While we happily munched, Jesse finished up lunch prep, throwing an axis backstrap coated with a coffee dry rub directly on the coals. The prickly pear we harvested that morning was transformed into a nopales salad with wild mint, onions and goat queso fresco.
After lunch, the group settled in for a cooking demonstration as Jesse talked us through what we were having for dinner and how it would be prepared. He showed us how to make a fish stock for the fish soup that would feature the day’s catch. The agarita berries reduced down for a glaze for the bacon wrapped dove poppers. A wild turkey harvested off the ranch provided the protein for handmade ravioli. He showed us how easy it is to emulsify egg yolk and olive oil for an aioli to top the soup, all the while infusing pecans into cream on the back of the stove for the pecan custard dessert that would finish off the meal.
The rest of the afternoon was spent as each guest wished. Fishing, swimming, hiking or simply relaxing. As everyone reconvened on the porch for another spectacular meal a few hours later, we reflected on the beauty of the land and wildlife.
“This has been a wonderful way to appreciate the land conservation ethic of Tom and his family and the culture and cuisine of Texas,” said Margaret. “It’s going full circle from the harvesting of plants and animals for our dinner table to the conservation of our beautiful Texas lands for future generations.”
Explore Ranches in Texas & Beyond
The culinary adventure at Llano Spring Ranch was organized by Explore Ranches, a Texas company owned by landowners who want to share the ranch life they love.
The co-founders are Jay Kleberg, Allison Ryan and Jesse Womack. All three were fortunate to grow up with access to the wide-open spaces of family land in beautiful places in Texas. Now they want to share that experience with others.
By partnering with private landowners to offer exclusive access to Texas’ most wild and scenic places, Explore Ranches is providing outdoor enthusiasts the rare opportunity to experience life behind the fences. Explore Ranches is also partnering with landowners in Colorado and California.
Explore Ranches offers a range of experiences, from an all-inclusive lodge and working ranch in the Rocky Mountains near Steamboat Springs to a historic retreat in the Big Bend where guests can explore thousands of acres on their own.
Explore Ranches also offers unique experiences and activities in these special places. The culinary weekend at Llano Springs Ranch was the first such special event.
“Explore Ranches is a really cool concept,” said Andy Buckingham, who attended the culinary weekend with his wife, Erin. “If this weekend’s experience is any measure, its going to become something more and more people do. I wish I had known about it for Spring Break. It would be a lot of fun to join up with some of our friends for a place out in Big Bend. But, there’s always next year!”
Find out more at ExploreRanches.com